Assess the impact of welfare reforms on survivors of domestic abuse

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 4:15 pm, 16th June 2020

With regard to new clause 24, the Department is already obliged to consider the impacts of its policies through existing equality assessments, in accordance with the public sector equality duty. Moreover, the Department reviews, and is consistently striving to improve, services, working with partners who are experts in the areas that they support. This has included the roll-out of a significant training programme and the implementation of domestic abuse points of contact in every jobcentre.

I appreciate what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley wants to achieve through new clause 24, but I do not believe that the proposed duty is the mechanism through which to achieve it. If I may, I will highlight some of the support that is already available for victims of domestic abuse in response to the three important issues highlighted in subsection (3) of the new clause.

The availability of immediate support is crucial for victims of domestic abuse, and the existing universal credit advance scheme delivers that. The Department signposts individuals affected by abuse to specialist support and works with them to ensure that they are aware of the other support and easements available under universal credit, including special provisions for temporary accommodation, easements to work conditionality and same-day advances.

The existing universal credit advance scheme is there to provide immediate support for survivors of domestic abuse, as well as others. After completing a new universal credit claim, all new claimants can request a rapid advance of up to 100% of their estimated monthly award, allowing them to receive their first year of entitlement over 13 payments instead of 12. That money can be paid within a matter of days, or even on the same day if it is needed urgently. Advance repayments are made over 12 months and deductions are capped at 30% of claimants’ standard allowance. For claimants who find themselves in unexpected hardship, the repayments can be deferred for up to three months. In addition, change-of-circumstance advances are available to claimants in the month in which a change of circumstances means that their universal credit award will significantly increase from the next payment. Those advances are repayable over six months.

New clause 40 would remove the recoverability of budgeting advances, as well as removing the earnings and long-term claimant conditions for eligibility. The standard recovery period is 12 months, although it can be extended to 18 months in exceptional circumstances.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley raises the issue of waiving repayment of new claims advances and budgeting advances for victims of domestic abuse. New clauses 38 and 40 would raise equality concerns from other claimants such as care leavers, prison leavers and single parents, who might well argue that advances should be non-repayable for them, too. In addition, distinguishing these people from other claimants would be problematic to implement. For new claims advances, it would require an additional manual assessment to verify the claimant’s circumstances, which would be necessary to mitigate the risk of fraud, but might delay payment of urgently required support. Furthermore, removing the recovery, earnings and long-term conditions of budgeting advances would effectively remove any cap on the limit of such advances that may be taken out by a single claimant affected by the amendments. I appreciate what the hon. Member wants to achieve, but I do not think that the new clauses are the way to do it.

I reiterate the measures that the Government have already announced to further support universal credit claimants. From October next year, new claims advances of universal credit can be repaid over 24 months instead of 12, which could halve the amount that claimants with an advance need to repay each month, significantly reducing the impact of repaying advances. In addition, survivors of domestic abuse may be eligible for further support that does not need to be repaid. From next month, new claimants will continue for two weeks to receive legacy benefits that they were previously receiving, if their new universal credit claim is the reason for their benefits stopping. That includes employment and support allowance, income support and income-based jobseeker’s allowance, and it will mean that eligible claimants receive an average of £200 in additional support that does not need to be repaid. Discretionary housing payments are also available to new claimants, administered by local authorities.

Through new clause 39, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley seeks to make recoverable hardship payment non-repayable for victims of domestic abuse. It is worth mentioning that that payment applies only to claimants who have had a fraud penalty or sanction applied against them. When the abuse is known about, it is unlikely that a victim of domestic abuse would have such penalties applied to them in the first place. However, the DWP already exercises discretion on waiving this payment in exceptional circumstances, and a victim of domestic abuse would fit such circumstances. Therefore, we argue that the new clause is not necessary: if a recoverable hardship payment is applied, the DWP may already use its discretion to waive repayment.

Turning to new clause 41, the benefit cap was introduced to restore fairness between those receiving out-of-work benefits and taxpayers who are in employment. It provides an incentive to move into work. There is clear evidence that work, particularly full-time work, substantially reduces the likelihood of being in poverty—children in workless families are around three times more likely to be in poverty than those in families in which at least one adult works. The likelihood of a survivor having the benefit cap applied is reduced because of exemptions that are in place to provide breathing space while people stabilise their situation. For example, when housing benefit is paid in respect of a person in a refuge, it is excluded from the calculation of the benefit cap. In addition, any housing benefit paid to a universal credit claimant living in temporary accommodation is exempt from the benefit cap. Claimants who need additional support to meet rental costs can approach their local authority for a discretionary housing payment.

The DWP produces guidance to help local authorities to administer the discretionary housing payment scheme. This guidance suggests that DHP support should be prioritised for the most vulnerable, including households with young children and those fleeing domestic abuse. More than £1 billion has been provided to local authorities since 2011 to help the most vulnerable claimants. Some £180 million in discretionary housing payments is already available in 2020-21 for local authorities to distribute to support renters with housing costs in the private and social rented sectors. That money includes an additional £40 million to tackle affordability pressures in the private rented sector. As with the other new clauses, new clause 41 would raise equality concerns among other claimant cohorts facing similar challenges, such as refugees, care leavers or prison leavers, who might well argue that the benefit cap should not apply to them either.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley raised the issue of split payments. While we share her determination to support and protect victims of domestic abuse, the Government do not believe that introducing split payments by default is the appropriate policy response. For many legacy benefits, a payment is already made to one member of the household, so the way in which universal credit is paid is not a new concept. Additionally, evidence shows that the vast majority of couples keep and manage their finances together. Most couples want to manage their finances jointly.

We recognise, however, that there are circumstances in which split payments are appropriate. If a customer discloses that they are a victim of domestic abuse in an ongoing relationship, the DWP can make split payments available to provide them with access to independent funds. It is important that we allow the individual who is experiencing the abuse to decide whether split payments will help their individual circumstances.